Purpose and Desire and the University

The National Association of Scholars recently appointed Dr. J. Scott Turner as Director of our Diversity in the Sciences project. Dr. Turner is a retired professor of biology at the State University of New York, though he continues his research on ecology, evolution, and (in particular) termite colonies in Namibia. He is well-positioned to help NAS take on what he has termed the “zombie parasite” of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” afflicting American universities.

NAS’ appointment of Dr. Turner led me to read his 2017 book, Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It. Turner explains that he was led to write this book, in part, due to an outburst from a reviewer of one of his prior books. The reviewer, himself a prominent scientist, chastised Turner for writing about “intentionality”; to do so was, in that reviewer’s eyes, merely veiled religiosity, out of bounds of “real science.”

In response, Purpose and Desire takes the reader through a wide-ranging survey, of thinkers such as Darwin, Claude Bernard, Francois Magendie, August Weismann, Thomas Hunt Morgan, J.B.S. Haldane, George Evelyn Hutchinson, Norbert Wiener, William D. Hamilton, and Lynn Margulis; to concepts such as vitalism, genesis (pan-, ortho-, and epi-), mutationism, kin selection, inclusive fitness, and cybernetics; as well as organisms as varied as spirochetes, undulipodia, Drosophila, leopards, Lamarck’s giraffe & Lord Morton’s mare & Darwin’s pigeons, and, of course, fungus-growing termites.

Purpose and Desire defends inquiry into those titular terms as a legitimate pursuit of “real science,” indeed, as essential to any biology worthy of the name “science-of-life.” Dr. Turner does so through focusing on the activity of homeostasis (self-regulation aimed at constancy). Turner’s insight is to seek out homeostasis at the level not just of the individual “organism” but also at the sub-organismic and super-organismic levels. He pursues these paths in part through the “adaptive interface,” which connects the would-be “individual” organism with its environment, an environment which is never static or simply given but which the living thing adapts to its needs and, dare we say, wants or desires. As a result, the line blurs between inside and outside, or even inside and deeper inside, or outside and further outside. In the end, Turner turns the quest for the origin of life away from the reductionist primordial soup and upwards to consideration of the world as a whole.

I am as far as can be from a physiologist and so have no grounds to evaluate Dr. Turner’s work. But he rings many bells that sound familiar and compelling, and in realms far from biology.

[Related: “When Diversity Invades Precision Agriculture”]

In my professional practice, consulting to families, homeostasis has long been recognized as a central quality of family-organization. In the face of inevitable changes, disruptions, and crises, families seek to maintain well-established modes of communication, decision-making, and habits of help or harm. Many advisors who have sought to “change” a family system see strenuous (and expensive) “interventions” chewed up, digested, and excreted by the homeostatic family.

At the same time—to move from practice to theory—thinkers from Xenophon to Tocqueville have recognized that the character of the family is shaped by the character of the political regime within which that family lives. If the family is the super-organism to the individual family “member,” the political regime is the super-organism to the type of family in that city. Fourth-century Athenian families bred gentlemen (the kaloi k’agathoi). Nineteenth-century American families bred democratic men (and women), steeped in the principle of equality even in the relations between parents and children. Just as men are not born “from oak or rock,” so too no family is an island. Or, rather, a family without a city would be the Cyclops’ cave.

So then, just as Dr. Turner reorients the search for life from the very small to the very large, perhaps it makes sense in the search for the good life to turn from positivism’s limited abstraction of homo economicus to political philosophy’s question of the best regime.

Dr. Turner’s insights into homeostasis and the importance of the adaptive interface also apply fruitfully to concerns even closer to the hearts of the National Association of Scholars, namely, the health and sickness of the contemporary university.

What if we look upon the university as itself an adaptive organization? There is no doubt that for its all pose of radicalism, universities are deeply homeostatic. (Anyone trying to change departmental or university-wide policies and procedures knows how conservative the system can be.) Every few years some would-be prophet predicts the demise of the university—whether from declining enrollments, state budget belt-tightening, technological innovation, public distrust, or now COVID—only to see this super-organism adapt itself to the new environment and adapt the environment to serve its survival.

[Related: “The ‘Diversity’ Road to Mediocrity”]

For more than a century, one could have looked at American universities and say, a la Tocqueville, that they served the political regime they inhabit: no longer did they (primarily) turn out divines but rather Babbitts: more or less decent and more or less peaceable producers whose “purpose and desire” were their self-interest, rightly understood. Given the paramount importance of credentialing (leavened with a fair amount of youthful debauchery), it’s clear that this paradigm, by and large, still holds.

But it is in tension with the current attempt by many or most or at least the most prominent universities to change the regime they inhabit. It has been widely observed that in many states, and in the eyes of the current federal administration, we all live on campus now. The same DEI or Wokeism—this mRNA intruder—that has infiltrated the DNA of elite universities now seeks to adapt the broader environment to its purpose and desire. It is no wonder that our body politic has reacted with many of the classic symptoms of a fever.

So what then does health look like?

If we look, again, at the university as a super-organism, what sort of adaptive interface is it? In more homely terms, what creature lives there? It may produce preachers, consumers, workers, Wokeistas (or, farther back, gentlemen, rhetoricians, monks, etc.)—but these products of the adaptive interface are not necessarily any more essential to it than the pieces or products of beaver dams, birds’ nests, or termite mounds.

My own tentative suggestion is that the university is the home, the adaptive interface, of the scholar. A scholar is a searcher after truth in the light of, and through the method of, science. A scholar can be “independent.” But it is a maladaptive state. Not only does one lack many of the tools and resources helpful to scholarship (and absolutely necessary to some fields). One also lacks a ready community of colleagues, students, and, in a word, friends who advance one’s search for truth through challenges and encouragement. Private contemplation certainly doesn’t pay the bills.

Now, Socrates had no university, but he did have a “school,” a habit of leisure (schole) spent in conversation with his friends and in contemplation by himself, supported by the wealthier among his companions. Plato, of course, had the Academy, which drew students from around Greece. Aristotle set forth the model for the university in the final book of his Politics, in which he described the liberal arts—the sciences suitable for free men—as the crown of the best (possible) city. Instruction in these arts was philosophy’s gift to politics, in return for its toleration and even support.

This innovation was an adaptation most profound. But that does not make it permanent. Let’s do all we can not to regress.

Image: Jeremy Bezanger, Public Domain


  • Keith Whitaker

    Keith Whitaker, Ph.D., is a Founding Associate at Wise Counsel Research Associates. He also serves as Chair of the Board of the National Association of Scholars.

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